July 28, 2023 - 2:45pm

What happens to men who attack women in Scotland? Not very much, it appears, after a man who punched a woman twice last weekend was let off with a police warning. The decision has been criticised by feminists and the SNP MP Joanna Cherry KC, herself a former prosecutor, who tweeted this morning that concerns about the caution are “well-placed”. 

The man, who hasn’t been named, was one of the counter-protesters who turned up when a group called Women Won’t Wheesht, which opposes the Scottish government’s controversial gender reforms, held a peaceful rally in Aberdeen. It is the latest in a series of incidents, not just in Scotland, where feminists who uphold women’s legal rights have been threatened with violence and in some instances physically attacked

But the situation north of the border, where attempts to show a documentary called Adult Human Female have been blocked twice at the University of Edinburgh, is particularly acute. The passage of a contentious bill last December to allow people to “identity” as the opposite sex seems to have encouraged some very unpleasant public protests. In January, several SNP politicians were photographed in Glasgow in front of a placard threatening to “decapitate terfs”. (They later said they were not aware of the message.)

Following the assault on Julie Marshall in Aberdeen last weekend, the policy analysis collective Murray Blackburn Mackenzie has written to Sir Iain Livingstone, Police Scotland’s Chief Constable. Their letter asks how the caution squares with public bodies’ obligations under the European Convention of Human Rights to protect freedom of speech and assembly. Just two months ago, Livingstone admitted the existence of institutional sexism and misogyny at Police Scotland. 

Marshall’s experience points to a very specific problem, however. She has photographs of her injuries and gave a statement to police after the assault, but she was not even informed of the decision to let her assailant off with a warning. It is hard to imagine other circumstances in which an assault, in front of dozens of witnesses and in the presence of police officers, would be treated so lightly. 

But this is what happens when extremists are allowed to get away with claiming that they are the victims of a non-existent “war” on trans people. Trans activist rhetoric essentially boils down to “terfs ask for it”, as though gathering peacefully to defend women’s rights is an intolerable provocation. And women are left seeking protection from police forces who, in some instances, vie for approval from Stonewall and paint police cars in trans colours. Police Scotland only withdrew from Stonewall’s Diversity Champions scheme earlier this year.

There is a clear conflict of interest here. It is not the job of the police to judge people’s legally held views or take sides in a heated public debate. Politicians should be saying as much, but most remain shamefully silent — or give a tacit nod to trans activists through their own behaviour. Labour’s sudden realisation earlier this week that biological sex matters has not been accompanied by an apology to all the women in the party, such as Rosie Duffield MP, who have been bullied and harassed for saying so.

Police Scotland claims that handing a caution to Marshall’s assailant is in line with the Lord Advocate’s guidelines which, very conveniently, are not publicly available. But it reinforces the idea that police up and down the country still don’t take violence against women seriously — especially when the victims are feminists.


Joan Smith is a novelist and columnist. She has been Chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board since 2013. Her book Homegrown: How Domestic Violence Turns Men Into Terrorists was published in 2019.

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